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Playing at the film club: Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa)

Film Club: Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, 1954)

Seven Samurai
In many places on the Northern hemisphere, September is harvest time. With harvest come various things: hard work, wonderful food, quality time outdoors, community, bonding, and… bandits! At least, if you live in late Sengoku era Japan.

To defeat the bandits attacking your village, you need defenders. Samurai! But sometimes it’s difficult to bring warriors into a village setting. How much will it cost? How will they behave? And are they both good enough fighters and good enough in their hearts to protect you? This is the setup of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 masterpiece Seven Samurai, a film that is constantly ranked among the best in the history of cinema.

It is also this month’s film for our Akira Kurosawa film club. As a result, now is the perfect time to rewatch it, or indeed watch it for the first time ever if you have never seen it.

If you are interested in learning more about Seven Samurai, including backgrounds, production history and common approaches to the film, head over to the brand new Seven Samurai page which I just put together, just for you.

And get hold of the film! There are no excuses: Seven Samurai is available practically everywhere in the world. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the guys and gals on the International Space Station have a copy, too. Check your streaming services or, if you want a physical copy for yourself, see if you can buy one of Criterion’s wonderful releases. For information about home video availability, see the DVD and Blu-ray pages.

If you are new to our film club, welcome! Ours is a friendly place where any and all thoughts, ideas and responses to the films that we watch are warmly welcomed. You can share yours either below in the comments section, or start a more focused new discussion thread at the forums. You can also check out some of our previous Seven Samurai discussions right here.

To get the ball rolling, here’s an ice-breaker: where were you when you first saw Seven Samurai and what was your immediate response to it? Has that response changed?


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Discussion

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J. Nathaniel Berke

Seven Samurai was the first “Important Foreign Film” I ever saw. I was in a film class in college. I heard several things like “it’s so long” and “over three hours of subtitles.” From the moment it began until the moment it ended I was completely mesmerized and it was love at first sight. Akira Kurosawa instantly became my favorite director. I ordered Donald Richie’s book and tracked down every film I could – which wasn’t easy pre-internet! I’ve seen “Seven Samurai” at least twenty or so times since then and my love, respect and admiration for it continues to grow.

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njean

I also saw it for the first time when I was in college. I loved it. I’ve watched it at least 10 times since then, and I still love it. It’s my all-time favorite film.

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Vili Maunula

One day when I was 12 or 13, my English teacher hands me a VHS tape to borrow. “Vili,” she says, “I think you’d like this film.” The cover says “Seven Samurai”.

Looking back, I don’t really know why she gave me that tape. As far as I can remember, she had never given me any other film, book or recording. And she never did so again after Seven Samurai. And as it wasn’t in English, it had nothing to do with school, either.

I remember watching the film. I remember where I sat, what time of day it was, and the interruptions by my sister and my mom. I remember it being quite a sunny day and us not having curtains up for some reason. I remember the tape jamming once in the player.

I remember thinking that the film was ok.

I return the tape and go to the village library to read about this Kurosawa guy. He sounds interesting. I think I’d like to check out other films by him. But nothing else is available to me.

Fast forward a couple of years, I’m in high school now. I learn that the French channel Canal+ will be running a Kurosawa season. I remember the Seven Samurai tape, and as someone who thinks his future will lie in cinema, I feel I should check out these films now that I have the opportunity. As I’m a penniless student living on my own, I don’t have the premium channel, but I know a friend who does. I ask him to tape the films, I think ten in total. I buy the necessary empty VHS tapes and eat rice for the rest of the week. The films Canal+ shows are mostly the samurai ones, but also Stray Dog and Ikiru. When I get the tapes back, I watch the films within a couple of days and discover some real gems in there. I’m suddenly in love with Kurosawa.

I also have the opportunity to rewatch Seven Samurai. It’s still an ok film. But the others are better.

I go to the city library and discover a weirdly shaped book by someone called Donald Richie. I’m fascinated by the way this man looks at the films that I have just watched. So much so that I set up a Kurosawa tribute website to share the world some of my own thoughts. That website follows all the conventions of a late 90s personal website. A black background, a couple of tiny photos, poorly written English. Probably an animated gif somewhere. Geocities.

In the time since, my relationship with Seven Samurai hasn’t changed all that much. I have lost count of how many times I have seen it, fully or partially. I still think that it’s an ok film, but somehow it fails to generate the kind of response in me that I get from many of Kurosawa’s other films. I’m not sure why. Kurosawa once described Stray Dog as too technical and too cold, as if it were lacking a heart. I feel quite similarly towards Seven Samurai. I can see the historical importance, I can see the fascination, I can understand the love, but it doesn’t really speak to me personally, I don’t get much out of it. I feel that while its technical experimentation is largely successful, its narrative experiment doesn’t quite work. But I can’t really put into words why.

It’s an ok film.

But it’s certainly an important one for me. Without my English teacher giving me that tape, I wouldn’t later have had those Canal+ broadcasts taped, likely wouldn’t have seen many other Kurosawa films, wouldn’t have read Richie’s book, wouldn’t have moved to Japan for a year. This website wouldn’t exist.

So, I consider it an ok film. But it’s a very important ok film for me personally.

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Ugetsu

Well, I’m on the fan side of this film – I still think its Kurosawa’s supreme cinematic achievement. To me its where all his qualities come together on the perfect subjec, with none of his occasional faults (such as his tendency towards didacticism) .

I think its the perfect epic – tight, focused, precise with faultless pacing. I think that if anything its underrated as so many writers on it focus on the technical and emotional side of the film, without recognising that like the best ‘great’ novels, it is dealing with weighty topics with a thoughtful eye.

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Patrick Galvan

I was in my early teens. I had been — and still am — a fan of vintage Japanese science fiction and learned very early on in my affinity for said genre that Ishiro Honda, director of many sci-fi films in the ’50s and ’60s, was close friends with a man named Akira Kurosawa, renowned by many as one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century. My curiosity was piqued and I kept my eyes open for an opportunity to see one of his movies. A few years later, I happened upon a chance to watch “Rashomon,” was greatly impressed by what I saw, and was hungry immediately thereafter to see more work from this director. Since I had also seen the 1960 film “The Magnificent Seven” and knew it was a remake of a Kurosawa film, I decided to keep my eyes open for “Seven Samurai” moving forward. I figured this would be a good second Kurosawa movie for me.

The first bit of “Seven Samurai” I saw was on the American television channel Turner Classic Movies. I happened upon it during the film’s second half and distinctly remember it was the scene right after Gorobei shot the first bandit with an arrow. I distinctly remember Kikuchiyo bossing around the farmers as Katsushiro arrives to deliver instructions from Kambei and being impressed by the great sense of composition. Alas, my parents were dragging me somewhere that evening (I don’t remember where; it was probably just out for dinner) so I didn’t get to see more than, say, a few minutes.

A couple of years later, I’m at a now-defunct media store called Borders. They had a DVD section designated for foreign cinema and it was there that I stumbled upon the Criterion DVD for “Seven Samurai.” It was pretty pricey — at least for then-adolescent me — but I decided to take a chance on it and coughed up double what I usually paid for a movie. As for the screening, I was initially a little trepidatious because it wasn’t until I was preparing to put Disc 1 into the DVD player that I looked at the back of the case and realized the movie was a whopping 207 minutes long. “Wow, more than three hours,” I thought. “This could be a long night — especially if I end up having the unpopular opinion on this one.”

Fortunately, I was absolutely blown away by it and it remains one of my favorite films to this day.

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chomei

Good point Vili, I would put it another way. I think “Seven Samurai” is a great film, but AK made more great films than any 3 other directors I can think of.

What, for me, is absolutely unique, and astonishing about him is that films like “Ikiru”, “Rashomon” and others that we haven’t gotten to yet are positively transcendent, they aren’t “just” brilliant, they probe the very essence of what it means to be human in an indifferent universe. As wonderful as “Seven Samurai” is, I don’t think it quite gets there.

I can think of few directors, and very few films that even approach this level.

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Ugetsu

Chomei, I think you put your finger on something when you say that most ‘great’ Kurosawa films get to the essence of what it means to be human in an indifferent universe. And for me what makes Seven Samurai great is that this isn’t what the film is about – to me Seven Samurai is about the collective – groups of warriors, communities of villagers, all struggling to survive in a universe which is not just indifferent, but actively malevolent. In a previous post on this I argued that the essence of this film is the paradox of societies needing men of violence to protect itself from violence, or as Orwell put it:

‘People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf’.

So perhaps the failure of Seven Samurai to hit that transcendence that other Kurosawa films manage has less to do with the quality of the film, but that it is not intended to have the personal resonance or impact of Ikiru or Rashomon – its Kurosawa’s ‘big take’ on the tides of history.

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Fortinbras

So nice to see this film again. For instance: Toshiro Mifunes funny role. All that rain and mud! Takashi Shimura’s physical presence compared to in Ikiru. The admiring look in Katsushiro’s eyes when looking at Kyuzo. The faith of Rikichi’s wife. Glad I’m using this film club to see all the films again.

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ssj

i really need to see this on blu-ray. my last proper viewing of the seven samurai was on VHS in the previous century.

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